Recently, Paul Diegel, Executive Director of the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center, posted an interesting article on the UAC blog, “In Defense of Sidecountry”, where he discusses the term sidecountry and how we should be using it. I have long been vocal about trying to eliminate the word from the professional vernacular and emphasize that it is truly “backountry”, whether it is ten feet or ten thousand feet from a ski area boundary, snow and avalanche conditions are different than within the ski area and should be treated as such.
From details provided in the blog post, they were obviously skiing at Canyons Resort and almost certainly the slope in question is Dutch Draw. Dutch has seen two avalanche fatalities since 2005, both in the Conehead slide path, both were predictable and preventable events, and both involved ill-equipped snowboarders leaving the ski area from the Backcountry Exit Point at the top of Peak 9990. I was heavily involved in one body recovery and have spoken with those involved in the other, ii is unlikely safety gear would have changed the outcome in either case, only knowledge and better decision making could have changed these tragic cases. I have also spent countless, frustrating hours trying to educate the skiing and riding public about the dangers of the areas so easily accessible from 9990. It is from these conversations and exchanges that I have developed a very different view of the problem and how we apply terminology to it.
Paul makes some very valid points about safety, danger and the inability to effect the changes in behavior that would start making these accidents less likely, but I think we have inadvertently created the behavior by providing the “out”. Throughout my years of talking to people of all ages and experience levels at the top of 9990 a few common themes have emerged:
“It’s just sidecountry…” probably the most common response to any line of questioning. It’s almost like a crutch, the easy out. Reminds me of the all too cliche “everyone else is doing it”. It seems to allow reasonable people to justify, feel better about, or minimize the risks they are about to undertake. It’s almost as if the term resolves any internal moral dilemma they may have – it helps speed their way into those heuristic traps we speak so much about as educators. From the NSAA Journal article referenced – there is a “Kinder, gentler implication…” in the term sidecountry, it suddenly becomes something attainable for normal people, from the 20 something kid mentioned to the family of four vacating from Texas.
” The advisory is for the backcountry, not that slope…” can’t tell you how many times I got that reply when I asked folks if they had checked the avalanche forecast that day. The proximity to the resort seems to create a mentality that the danger rating somehow doesn’t apply, therefor why read it? Canyons patrol even posts it right at the top of the lift for those too lazy to make the effort to check it before they head out. But that’s beside the point, because we’ve adopted these multiple terms to describe the terrain, many people have come to the conclusion that the forecast doesn’t apply to Dutch Draw, Square top, Pioneer Peak, Rocky Point and Hidden Canyon.
I could go on and on forever, I made some comments about the post on Facebook but they seem to have disappeared so I figured I’d jump on my soapbox here. I completely agree with Paul that what we call it doesn’t change the behavior, but I’ve been teaching avalanche courses long enough to know, we can’t change behavior without effort on the part of the user or user group. I think the key is changing the awareness of that user group. If the term is here to stay, maybe the forecast should emphasize that it applies to both “backcountry” and “sidecountry” terrain. Just saying it doesn’t apply to ski area operational areas isn’t enough, people will always distort info to fit their needs, you can’t give them the easy way out. Force them to think and make the tough decisions, find a way to make them confront the dragon head on, not push it into the closet and ignore it. There are so many pieces of this equation I haven’t discussed; Group dynamics, interaction with other groups, safe travel, terrain management, gate locations, private/public access, etc etc etc.
I believe we (the educators, forecasters, patrollers, & guides) probably embraced and promoted the term initially, almost as a badge of pride to show that what we were doing, “earning our turns”, was somehow more hardcore than the silly yo-yo skiers doing endless laps next to a ropeline. Well we did a phenomenal job of selling our point and people lapping Dutch Draw from Canyons have convinced themselves for a variety of reasons that what they are doing is safer than what we are doing over in Silver Fork across the way. We are as guilty as any for creating this monster, and I believe the first step to changing the overall awareness of the “sidecountry” user is to change the belief the terrain they ride is, as Paul says, maybe more dangerous than the terrain I choose to recreate it. I was psyched to see the NSAA and USFS make an official stance on eliminating the term, if the rest of the community thinks its here to stay then a concerted effort to redefine the term should be made. I’d prefer to just bury it and call a spade a spade, it’s backcountry.